The Vincentian Canon was St. Vincent’s way of providing a basis between true and false doctrines. He proposed Scripture and Tradition as a twofold method. Yet he realized the consequences of such a method. For even though Scripture was seen as a sufficient means amongst the Fathers, it could still be misinterpreted. Even the Devil knows Scripture and heretics always argue from it! Thus, St. Vincent came up with the two canons. The first is Tradition as a preservation. He said that a true doctrine is that which is believed everywhere, at all times, and by all the faithful (ubique, semper, ab omnibus). He also conceived it in terms of universaility, antiquity, and consent. For Universality, he meant all the faithful, the teaching and believing Church. For antiquity, he meant at all times. For consent, however, Vincent had the bishops in mind, especially when in a council. Yet Vincent was not naïve about universality. He did not equate it with strict unanimity.
Vincent’s second canon was Tradition as growth. For him, though, there was a restriction on growth. It had to be in the same sense and in the same meaning. There was a conservative action in his idea of development. He said there was a difference between a profectus- a progression, and a permutatis- a change. A profectus, which preserves what came before (while allowing room for polishment and clarity) was accepted. A permutatitis, which was a change from one thing to another, was not accepted. Vincent also thought that a development wasn’t simply tolerated, but rather it had to happen. This implies that what was earlier was less perfect and what came later (was older) was more perfect.
St. Vincent also gave us examples which are more informative than his two canons. One was Timothy guarding the deposit. For him, this was the duty of the whole Church. Another example he gives is the image of a body. An embryo, while being of the same substance, looks different than an adult body. A fully grown body has arms and legs and, in a sense, those arms and legs are in the embryo, although they look different. There is a sense of continuity in the image. Vincent also gives the image of a seed which needs to develop and mature.
The problem with Vincent’s canon is that he doesn’t give enough credit to the potency of a doctrine. He seems not to allow for a true development of doctrine as, according to him, the entire deposit is already given in an explicit manner from the beginning. There is a very real lack of a movement from implicit knowledge of a doctrine to an explicit knowledge. According to the canon, many intelligent minds ought not to have missed the connection between what is implicit and what is explicit. Newman brings up the case of the Trinity. He says that it was not held by all the faithful, at all times, and everywhere in the early Church and so, according to Vincent, is not a true doctrine. As well, the very fact that we have seen Father against Father and bishop against bishop, belies Vincent’s canon! Yet Vincent does have some similarities with Newman’s idea of development. For instance, Vincent’s restriction on growth is similar to Newman’s note of conservative action upon its past. Also, Vincent and Newman both hold that in some sense, a development is to be expected.